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12/08/11 12:30 PM EST

Sting of Pujols' departure only temporary

Three-time MVP far from the first star to leave first organization

DALLAS -- The mang has left the building.

Albert Pujols is far from the first iconic player in professional sports to bolt from his club in the midst of his prime. But in baseball history, there really is no comparable. Pujols is -- excuse me, was -- the St. Louis Cardinals. More than just the face of a franchise, he was the soul of one of the truly great baseball cities.

Now, he's gone. His westward migration monetized to the tune of $250 million over 10 years.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have handed a lump of coal to Stan Musial, whose grandson had tweeted a picture of "The Man" holding a sign that read, "All I want for Christmas is for Pujols to be a Cardinal." And they've no doubt trampled the hopes of many a St. Louisan along the way.

Money talks, whether you're a mere mortal or even "The Machine." Loyalty has its limits and, more to the point, its price. From the day Pujols turned down the Cards' final pre-2011 offer when he arrived at Spring Training camp, you could see a scintillating situation brewing. Few, however, expected Pujols' market -- as great as he is -- to magnify to this level. Not with the Yankees and Red Sox out of the running, at least.

At these Winter Meetings, however, that market not only crystallized but climaxed. First it was those free-spending Marlins in Miami upping the ante to a full decade, and then the dreaded "Mystery Team" (a club that must generate excellent attendance totals, given that it always has cash to spend this time of year) got involved.

Among the greats
Albert Pujols rewrote many offensive record books during his 11 years in St. Louis, ranking among the all-time franchise leaders in numerous offensive categories.
Category Total Rank
Home runs 445 2nd
RBIs 1,329 2nd
Doubles 455 2nd
Slugging percentage .617 2nd
On-base plus slugging 1.037 2nd
Walks 975 2nd
Runs 1,291 3rd
On-base percentage .420 3rd
Hits 2,073 4th
Average .328 6th
Games 1,705 7th
At-bats 6,312 8th

Just when it appeared the Cards had risen to the challenge posed by the field and were close to terms with Pujols, along came Thursday morning's reports that the Angels had sealed the deal.

The Rally Monkey came through in the clutch once again.

So now, Pujols is Major League Baseball's answer to LeBron James, but only to a point. After all, Pujols has two championship rings, and LeBron's search for "not one, not two, not three, not four," etc., continues in Miami. And LeBron was a native son, too, so when he cut the cord with the Cleveland Cavaliers on a national television debacle named "The Decision," he cut deep.

At least you can give Pujols credit for not taking this process to that ridiculous point. He didn't make a spectacle out of his free-agent status. He simply sat back and waited for the best offer to roll in. There was always speculation that a team would have to drastically overpay to pull him out of St. Louis, where a statue was recently erected outside his restaurant and where he was a modern-day Musial. And the Angels, well, they certainly overpaid.

You're free to act surprised at the dollar number and contract length, for Pujols will turn 32 in a month and had begun to show his first signs of decline in the midst of the Cards' 2011 World Series championship season.

But don't be shocked by the defection. Though we haven't seen it at this particular level in this particular sport, we have seen it time and time again.

We saw it with LeBron, with Shaq and Kareem leaving their "hometown" teams for La-La Land and when Clyde Drexler blazed past the Blazers, Houston-bound. We saw it when Wayne Gretzky skated his way out of Edmonton. Or when David Beckham left Manchester United for Real Madrid.

We've seen it in baseball. Jim Thome left Cleveland, after saying they'd have to tear the Tribe jersey off his back, and he followed the precedent of Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez. Paul Molitor left Milwaukee for the Blue Jays. The Dodgers traded Mike Piazza to the Marlins. Darryl Strawberry left the Mets for the Dodgers. Ken Griffey Jr. asked for a trade and returned to his hometown Reds. Barry Bonds left Pittsburgh. Roger Clemens became a Jay.

On and on the list goes. Hey, Pujols isn't even the first major defection of the week. Jose Reyes took his talents to South Beach, too.

Add Pujols' name to the list, and put him atop the list of big league betrayers.

But if you're a Cardinals fan, you might one day come to thank him. Continuing to build a winning club around Pujols would have been at best a challenge and at worst impossible at $25 million a year in that market. Pair him with Matt Holliday and the $17 million a year he's making through at least 2016, and the Cards would have found themselves with two guys entering their mid-30s and eating up more than $40 million of a payroll that, thus far, has not eclipsed $100 million.

Granted, the Cards painted themselves into this corner long ago. They didn't lock Pujols up with that second long-term extension that would have kept him from the free-agent foray. In the winter before the 2010 season, they re-signed Holliday to a seven-year, $120 million deal, instantly making him the club's highest-paid player. They didn't show anywhere near as much aggression with Albert, even as they knew that clock was ticking -- even as they knew that once a player of his caliber gets to free agency, all bets are off.

But you can bet on the Cards one day counting their blessings that this albatross of a contract is not on their hands. That day won't come in 2012, especially given the news of Allen Craig's knee surgery. That's a blow to the backup plan. But it will come one day, perhaps sooner than we suspect.

Pujols just crushed the heart of a team and a town. He joins the trail of traitors. But he had hundreds of millions of reasons to leave, and the Cards had just as many reasons to let him walk.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.